Friday, December 29, 2006

What a Young Earth Would Look Like

I'm continuing my series on creation / evolution questions, where I explain why I'm genuinely unsure about how old the Earth and the universe are.

Let's just explore the idea of an Earth that was created suddenly, without a Big Bang or accretion disks or anything, and think about what it would be like. We need to do this so that we can test it as an idea against what we observe the Earth to be like, and see if they fit.

Suppose that Adam decided to dig down underneath the Garden of Eden. What would he see? Well, eventually I guess he'd see rock. And rocks on Earth are classified as igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic. But we observe all three of those being formed today, and all three therefore have inferred histories - we look at them and say "this rock used to be part of a volcano" or "this rock used to be a bit of sand at the bottom of an ocean" or something. In other words, if a geologist had been there looking at the rocks, he wouldn't have been able to tell that the Earth was new (well, not just by looking at the rocks).

What about trees in the Garden of Eden? If Adam had cut a tree down, would he have seen rings? I guess so. But again, when we see tree rings, we infer a history from that. What about horses' teeth? Did horses in the Garden of Eden have rings in their teeth? (I don't know much about horses, but apparently they have rings in their teeth - like trees rather than bulls' noses).

What about limestone? Limestone today is formed by lots of dead sea creatures (or their shells) getting squashed by huge pressure. Would there have been limestone on Earth when it was created? I don't see why not, but if there was, then a geologist there would infer that there had been lots of sea creatures millions of years before, which had died.

I don't think there's any way to escape the fact that if Earth was created suddenly in the last 20 000 years, then it probably in some sense had to have the appearance of age, even down to having the appearance of previous organisms having died.

That's really annoying in a way for trying to work out how old the earth is, of course, because it means that we need to be very careful with dating techniques.

Some people might well point out that this could be said to lead to (the unscientific and unfalsifiable) "Last Thursdayism" - the belief that the whole universe was created last Thursday, with the appearance of age and everyone having memories. But the difference is that there's no good reason to believe Last Thursdayism but some people say there is good reason to believe in a sudden creation of the universe during the last 20 000 years. I think they're probably exaggerating the evidence, but that's a different story...


Iain said...

Even more extreme and damaging for the Young universe position is the problem of distant starlight. This is illustrated strongly by the Supernova SN1987A which occurred in the Large Magellanic Cloud - a satellite galaxy of our own one, so in effect just in our cosmological back yard.

The supernova which was observed in 1987 is now surrounded by a large expanding cloud of gas. As I recall, doppler measurements of the spectral shift of the portion of the cloud moving towards us give the speed of expansion to be around three quarters of the speed of light. Then a simple trigonometrical calculation on the angle subtended in the sky by the cloud enables the distance to be calculated as 169,000 light years. We are thus looking at an event that took place 169,000 years ago.

If we take the Bible's (implied) timescale literally, then we will not directly see what the star was like on "Day 4" of creation week for another 163,000 years. What we will see is an old feeble dying white dwarf, and infer that God created a beam of photons in which was contained information of an implied history that never happened.

I am told (by another creationist who is an astronomer) that there are NO theories that have been proposed by creationists that even come near to getting round this problem and all of them suffer the appearance of age paradox.

You write in an earlier post that you are not sure the Bible teaches that there is a 6,000 year history. It seems to me that the evidence you have cited, and clear astronomical evidence like supernova SN1987A make it very clear that the bible does NOT teach this short history - and that what is wrong is not the bible, but the so-called "literal" interpretations of it.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, I was going to have fun posting about distant starlight! It seems I was beaten to it.

I don't think that the bible teaches YECism, even when you try to read it in it's "simple and obvious" form. If we read Genesis 1 'literally', we discover that God made the earth, then he made days, then he made the sky (so what was a 'day' beforehand?). On the fourth day he made the sun, by which point he'd already made plants. While all this doesn't provide a knockdown argument, it gives us a fairly blunt hint that Genesis 1 wasn't meant to be one of the literal history sections of the bible.

Iain said...

The other thing you might mention about Genesis Ch 1,ds, is that it says things like "God said 'Let the earth produce ... plants, seed-bearing fruit etc'". Hence a pretty fair reading of this is that God endowed the earth with the physical properties such that life could arise subsequently by "natural causes" (ie the earth does the creating by itself, according to God's decree).

blog dog said...

Hi, Happy New Year by the way!

Horses don't quite have rings on their teeth in the way you infer, although one can age a horse (to an extent by the markings (some of which could be thought of as rings, but there are also 'stars' and 'lines' that are important in the ageing process) / shape / number / wear of the teeth. I could explain in detail if you like...

blog dog said...

Oooh, abberant brackets (as usual) in my previous apologies custard. I hope you can decipher...

Anonymous said...

I think that the biggest problem here is human frailty with regard to large numbers. As far as any of us are concerned, what is the difference between 20k, 20M and 20G?

All big. All much bigger than any of us can really imagine.

John said...

Ah - so many comments to deal with.

Iain - I disagree about the problem of distant starlight for reasons I'll discuss when I get onto cosmology. Basically, if you're dealing with ex nihilo sudden creation, then you need to create virtual photons mid-journey inside atoms, otherwise it doesn't work. And since all photons are virtual (as Feynman said), why not create all the other virtual photons mid-journey as well?

Rings on teeth - I'm quite happy to concede that I know little about biology (and that you know much much more). My highest qualification in it is a science teaching qualification, followed by a GCSE. But exactly how horses' teeth work isn't directly relavent, just that they do work.

No conception of numbers - I think it needs to be slightly more nuanced. I know what 1 mg of sugar looks like, and the difference between 20k of them, 20M of them and 20G of them is very significant. But with years, where we only get to experience 100 or so in total, I agree that we don't really have much real conception of what much longer would look like. But I don't see why that's a problem for this.

Iain said...


I'll be interested in your theories about solving the distant starlight problem. I finished my Physics degree in 1980 so I'm a bit rusty, so you'll have to explain it pretty slowly!

But I can't at the moment see how what you say gets around the problem that the supernova explosion we witnessed in 1987 was an event that never really happened in a universe that is only 6,000 years old, and that what was created on Day 4 was a burnt out white dwarf that looked like it had only been a real star 163,000 years before. I feel I need a better explanation of these facts than just an invocation of "virtual photons". Perhaps this will come out of your cosmology post - which will indeed be interesting as I don't recall seeing any creationist arguments along these lines.

John said...

The point with virtual photons is that if matter is created suddenly, that has to include photons from time 0 - they can't just have photons existing only as they are subsequently emitted.

If all that was created was quarks and leptons, then the atoms would all be horribly unstable for the first instant and fly apart - the electromagnetic force needs photons to be continually exchanged in order for it to function. So for a body to come into existence suddenly, ex nihilo, that must include photons with the appearance of having been emitted at time -t.

Given that, and given what I wrote about inferred (false) histories also being a necessary consequence of such a system, it seems at least as likely that photons should be created giving the appearance of an inferred event than that they should not.

I'm simply saying that creating the photons appearing to have come from 1987A, even if 1987A never actually happened, would not be qualitatively different from what is involved in the creation of matter suddenly and ex nihilo. Hence the argument does not add any qualitatively new objections.

Of course, some creationists argue for a variable fine structure constant (as do most variants of Grand Unified Theories), and that might well significantly affect cosmological datings and distances. But I haven't seen any real work on what a variable fine structure constant would do to the universe from anyone involved. I suspect it's just too complicated to figure out...

Anonymous said...

Ok. So imagine you don't live in the 21st century and that you don't have a physics or maths (or engineering) degree. What would be the difference between telling a 1st Millenia BC person that the universe was a few thousand years old or a few billion?

Saying it was very old would be good enough.

Iain said...

Hi, Custard

I've just been reading up about virtual photons and so forth, and a little of it is coming back to me.

I think I'd take exception to your concepts of the "virtual photon being created mid-journey", and "having the appearance of being emitted at time -t". As I understand it, virtual photons explain the electromagnetic forces between particles and can be represented as Feynman diagrams. At least a couple of websites (one of them Wikipedia .. ho hum .. not the most reliable or constant source of information I admit!!) indicate that a clear distinction is to be made between "virtual photons" and "real photons" in that virtual photons cannot be directly observed, whereas real photons can be observed with light detectors. A clear description is given at:

Hence I can't see any meaning in the statement that the photon has the "appearance" of being emitted at time -t when it can't be observed at all. By contrast the light from SN1987A was directly observed - a huge stream of photons over time depicted an explosion and the the subsequent expansion of a cloud of gas - all of which are completely fictional in a 6000 year old universe.

Equally, the concept of a virtual photon in the interaction between two particles being created "mid-journey" also doesn't make sense - from a quantum point of view it's not like a solid particle that journeys from one "real" particle to the other, but arises (as I recall) as the sum over the probability distibution of all possible paths that can arise because of the uncertainty principle.

You've said that the SN1987A argument doesn't add any qualitatively new objection, but even if your point about virtual photons is the same, since the distant starlight problem has been around for a long time and creation scientists have expended a lot of effort in the unsuccessful search for a solution to it, but I've not seen your point about virtual photons before, then could it not be said that the virtual photon argument doesn't add any qualitatively new objection to the distant starlight problem?

However, I'd better stop waffling now or else my physics rustiness will begin to show, if it hasn't already ;-)

blog dog said...

"But exactly how horses' teeth work isn't directly relavent, just that they do work."